THE launch of the nomination process yesterday for this year’s inductees into the SFA’s Hall of Fame was an apposite time for Craig Brown to push the case of long-time friend Alex Smith.
The temptation to view the championing as a shameless example of old pal’s act seemed irresistible…except for the fact that close inspection of Smith’s achievements presents a powerful case for the 74-year-old’s Hall-of-Famer credentials.
The company that Smith keeps for the moments that have elevated his managerial career is Alex Ferguson and Jock Stein. Stein is the only other manager to win the Scottish Cup with two different clubs, but Smith’s St Mirren and Aberdeen double is a more unlikely twosome than Stein snaring the trophy at Celtic following success at Dunfermline.
Ferguson comes into the equation because he is the only other man in the annals of Scottish football to win a cup double at a club outside of the Glasgow behemoths. Smith’s Aberdeen annexed the League Cup and Scottish Cup in a 1989-90 campaign in which they also finished second in the top flight, four years after Ferguson’s Pittodrie side had both cups and a fourth place to show for their season’s efforts.
These snapshots of past Pittodrie glories demonstrate what could open up for Derek McInnes if this Sunday’s League Cup final against Inverness Caledonian Thistle goes the way of his Pittodrie side. With Celtic in disarray, Smith’s Aberdeen were Scottish football’s second force. Aside from these cup wins, they had three consecutive top-two finishes in the then Premier Division – the runners-up slot in 1990-91 the result of them blowing a winning position at Ibrox on the last day.
With two seasons from now the earliest Rangers could make their way into the top flight, Smith believes that McInnes could enjoy a period at Pittodrie similar to that he presided over. “The winning of this cup is a pressure, no doubt about that, but Derek will handle it and the players will handle it,” said Falkirk’s director of football. “If they win this the pressure will be off, but there will also be a build-up to the next one [and the Scottish Cup semi-final against St Johnstone]. It’s fair to say everyone, up to now, has been behind the upsurge in Aberdeen, they see it as a great thing in Scottish football, and I think it is fantastic they’ve come back into contention for trophies. With Rangers out the picture, it allows them to win a cup and get second place, and be a top-two team when Rangers come back in again.”
The platform for Aberdeen now to become contenders again was laid by Brown, even if the former Scotland manager modestly states of his two seasons pre-McInnes alongside Archie Knox that “we didn’t win anything and didn’t even get them into Europe”.
Brown rebuilt the team – with eight starters on Sunday likely to have been in position in his era – before taking up a directorship to allow McInnes to take over, and it is chairman Stewart Milne that he will be chuffed for if the Pittodrie men live up to their favourites’ status and deliver a first trophy of the major shareholder’s tempestuous 16-year stewardship.
“I think he has been wrongly criticised a lot,” Brown said of Milne. “He is a wholesome guy, what you see is what you get. He never interferes but if you suffer a bad loss he’ll tell you it wasn’t good enough. If you do well, he’ll thank you for giving him a decent weekend. He is a real football guy. It’s very harsh for anyone to criticise him after what he has put into Aberdeen. When I was at Motherwell, I took a call from Fergie [Alex Ferguson]. It was just by coincidence but I told him that Aberdeen were phoning me. He said: “That man [Milne] is outstanding to work for.” He’s never worked for the chairman but had obviously heard.
“Would I like Aberdeen to win this cup for the chairman? Absolutely – and for the fans up there. I didn’t set the heather on fire at Aberdeen but the fans acknowledge what we did. I’ve worked for a few football clubs but this really is a super club. It’s a club of real substance and that comes from the top. It came from Dick Donald and I feel Stewart Milne is the same.”